Squaring the Circle of ISIS

by Bernard Chazelle

In matters of battle, there are certain things we’ve come to expect. The pairwise nature of combat, for example. From the playing fields of Eton to the morne plaine of Waterloo, sports and war alike feature two rival sides with an attitude. They come in pairs. One day, Federer shows Nadal how it’s done; the next day, Bush takes on Saddam. Threesomes are uncommon. George Foreman didn’t climb into the ring to tussle with Ali and Frazier. Though no friend of Hitler or Stalin, FDR knew better than to declare war on both of them. Nor did he try to resurrect the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact so more panzer divisions could be in Normandy to greet the GIs. As far as we know, Eisenhower didn’t drop free weaponry for the Nazis to use before the Battle of the Bulge. And Nazi is what they were: not Nazoo, Noozi, or NZ depending on whom you asked. The enemy had a name we all agreed upon. Certain things about combat we’ve come to expect.

Well, expect no more. In the Middle East, the old battle script is quaint. ISIS is our new enemy. Or perhaps it is ISIL, or IS, or Daesh, or the Caliphate, or something. The point is, we have an enemy that “we need to fight there so we won’t have to fight it here.” It seems a pity because we share so much. They hate Bashar al-Assad and so do we. They can’t stand the Persian ayatollahs and neither can we. They have it in for al-Qaeda in Syria and who doesn’t? They draw their spiritual inspiration from our oldest ally in the region, Saudi Arabia, a corrupt theocracy known for its black gooey stuff and religious fanaticism. In the same month ISIS beheaded James Foley, our Saudi associates carried out 19 public beheadings, including a man accused of witchcraft. Our kind of friends.

The US-Saudi axis is key to understanding the rise of ISIS. Despite its public reticence, Riyadh supported the war in Iraq in 2003. Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait was still fresh in Saudi memory, so letting Bush finish his dad’s job was fine by the House of Saud. They had another reason to be appreciative. A recent Wikileaks document reveals how cuddly King Abdullah feels about Iran: “[The US should] cut off the head of the snake.” The invasion, it was hoped, would lock Iraq into the Saudi orbit and build a firewall to keep the heretic Shias at bay. Alas, the neocon dream turned into a Saudi nightmare, as Bush’s fiasco pushed Iraq right into the arms of Iran and raised the specter of a Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus axis. The Saudis freaked out and launched Operation “Down with the Shias.”

A catastrophic de-Ba’athification policy had created the ideal terrain for a sectarian war in Iraq. The once-dominant Sunnis had trouble adjusting to their new status as an oppressed minority. Formerly mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad were ethnically cleansed and Shia leaders redoubled their efforts to give the Sunnis something to be mad about. Riyadh couldn’t take the fight to Tehran, so a Sunni-Shia war was the next best thing. Perhaps only the geniuses in Washington believed this could end well, but the Gulf states foresaw a Shia crescent descending upon the region and decided it was time to panic. The sectarian war was on.

Israel had two reasons to go along with the anti-Shia pushback. One was that a nuclear Iran would threaten its regional hegemony. After Iran’s victory in the US-Iraq war, the urge for Israel to defang the ayatollahs had become irresistible. The other factor at play was Iran’s Lebanese client, Hezbollah, which fought the IDF to a stalemate in 2006 and caused Israel to question its deterrent capacity. (The case of Hamas is more complicated because its two patrons, Iran and Qatar, are at loggerheads over Syria). Israel’s will is America’s command, so to see Washington sing from the same hymnal was no surprise. But the US also had its own reasons to join in the anti-Iran chorus.


Just as Israel fingers Iran as its sole threat to regional dominance, the US knows that only China and Russia can imperil its position as world hegemon. China is a lost cause. The containment fantasies behind the much-touted “Pivot to Asia” died at birth and will not be revived. Last month, with little fanfare, China dethroned the US as the world’s largest economy, one of several reasons the Middle Kingdom is out of America’s hegemonic range. Russia is a different story. It is a midsize economic power. Yet it remains the biggest country in the world, its second nuclear power, and a necessary component of any “world order.” Ukraine and Syria are the current battlegrounds for the containment of Russia. King Abdullah can decapitate witches all he wants, he’s our best-friend-forever. But Vladimir Putin cannot just be a recalcitrant leader with legitimate concerns about the encirclement of his country by NATO forces. Hillary needs to assure us that he is the new Hitler, a comparison of exquisite vulgarity given Russian history. (Now, it is true that Putin illegally invaded Crimea with the overwhelming support of the locals—quite unlike our own illegal invasions, which tend to piss off the natives.)

It is common knowledge in foreign policy circles that the US is not in the Middle East for the oil but for its control. Europe relies on Russia for a third of its gas supply and is more than open to American attempts to reduce its dependency on Gazprom. With US blessing, Qatar lobbied hard to get its North Field gas reserve, the largest in the world, pipelined to Turkey and Europe while bypassing Russia. Assad, a Russia client, balked, and negotiated with Iran a passage for the latter’s South Pars gasfield in the Persian Gulf (adjacent to the North Field). An Iran-Iraq-Syria route would be a Gulf state nightmare and an American headache. It would also dash Ankara’s hopes of playing gatekeeper to European energy needs. The US-Saudi axis could put up with Assad’s murderous policies, but a pipeline from Iran, now that was going too far! Saudi Arabia dispatched its Intelligence chief, Prince Bandar, to Moscow to read Putin the riot act: Stop your support of Assad or expect a nasty Chechen surprise at the Sochi Olympics. Fluent in mafioso language, Putin became furious and made it clear to the sandbox princeling that he didn’t take orders from a terrorist-coddling camel herder. Moscow would stick with Assad and stick it to the sheiks.

With no Syria policy to speak of, Washington pivoted to Ukraine, only to show the world what Western impotence really looks like. Taking their cue from Obama, the leaders of Britain and France threatened the new Hitler with sanctions so painful he’d soon be begging on his knees for mercy: no camembert and pudding for him! Of course, Russia was still welcome to park its oligarchs’ money in London, get its assault ships from Paris (now on hold), and buy its usual $100 billion worth of goods from Berlin every year. But no dessert—that’ll teach him! To be fair, Obama’s Russia policy could have been worse: we could be at war with Moscow. By any other measure, it has been an unmitigated disaster. Putin will soon have achieved all of his objectives in Ukraine, a fact that President Poroshenko all but conceded recently by granting autonomy to the pro-Russia Donbass rebels. Victoria “Fuck the EU” Nuland can go back to handing out cookies in Kiev: her darling Yatsenyuk has resigned as prime minister and Washington’s plans are in tatters.

Consider the blowback: Moscow and Beijing signed a draft currency swap agreement to bypass the dollar in bilateral payments; the BRICS countries set up their own $100 billion development bank to counter the dominance of the IMF and the World Bank; Putin and the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, agreed to a game-changing $400 billion gas deal after years of stalled negotiations. Nothing like Western sanctimony backed by sanctions to make Russia and China find love. Meanwhile, with its economy mired in quasi-perpetual recession, the West has turned Teddy Roosevelt’s adage on its head: Speak loudly and carry a small stick.


From 10,000 feet, the geopolitics of the Middle East shows a semblance of coherence: a Washington-Riyadh petrodollar axis aligned against a rising Shia crescent backed by Russia, the whole thing played against the backdrop of a race for global dominance combined with blind US support for Israel. The neat rationality of this narrative is an illusion. A closer look reveals a world of Jabberwocky absurdity. While, in March 2011, Saudi troops rolled into Bahrain to repress the Arab Spring aspirations of its people, the Gulf states cunningly seized the zeitgeist of liberation to hijack the peaceful anti-Assad movement. Naturally, the one point of agreement between Bashar and the sheiks was that peace was not an option. Qatar and Saudi Arabia may not be on speaking terms but they found common ground in funding, training, and arming the Syria rebels.

Not the Free Syrian Army, mind you, that hapless bunch of weekend warriors who look ferocious only in the feverish minds of Hillary Clinton and John McCain, but the only two groups in Syria capable of fighting Assad: ISIS and the local al-Qaeda branch (Jabhat al-Nusra). As Steve Clemons reported in The Atlantic last June, Qatar took the latter under its wing while ISIS, according to one senior Qatari official quoted by Clemons, was a “Saudi project.”  There you had two of our closest allies in the Arab world funding, through private and probably public sources as well, the newest branches of the 9/11 franchise. McCain’s reaction to CNN in Jan. 2014? “Thank God for the Saudis and Prince Bandar!” When it became clear last spring that the Faustian bargain had turned sour and ISIS had the Saudis in its crosshairs, Bandar was fired (McCain was not). ISIS is largely self-funded at this point—smuggling oil at discount rates along the Turkish border is its principal source of revenue—so cracking down on private financing from the Gulf is largely moot at this point.

The civil war in Syria gave the West a chance to recover its delusional optimism from the early days of the Iraq war. While Obama has repeatedly called the end of the Assad regime a certainty, even a sober analyst like Juan Cole predicted in January of last year that Iranian influence would wither and Assad would be gone by 2014. What happened is the exact opposite. Iran is in the driver’s seat and Assad has never been stronger. The only forces posing a credible threat to ISIS are Assad’s army, Hezbollah, Iran, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Washington opposes all four of them. Think of FDR preparing for D-Day and refusing help from Britain, Canada, and the French Résistance. Obama is precisely where ISIS wants him to be: fighting the Islamic State while denying himself any chance of success. With ISIS firmly ensconced in urban areas, airstrikes will do little besides boosting recruitment for the group. The Islamic State publicly welcomed the US decision to arm the “moderate” rebels, confident that the weapons will eventually be theirs. In fact, thanks to the cracker jack squads of US-trained Iraqi forces, ISIS is already in possession of a whole arsenal of American weaponry.

Most experts agree that, unlike bin Laden’s organization, ISIS has chosen to focus its ire on the near-enemy and not on the West. Obama is intent on proving them wrong. His policy, such as it is, will help Assad stay in power (so much for regime change) and create a new generation of Western jihadists coming home as fully-trained terrorists. The US president must have in mind a repeat of the 2007 Sunni Awakening which put an end to al-Qaeda in Iraq. This is sure to fail for three reasons: first, the US no longer has 150,000 troops on the ground; second, scared of ISIS as they are, the Iraqi Sunnis are even more afraid of the Shia militias out for revenge; third, ISIS is mostly based in Syria (hence the US airstrikes on Raqqa, in blatant violation of the sort of international law that matters only when Putin breaks it). As for the brilliant idea of training the Iraqi army, words fail. The US has been doing just that for the last 10 years at a cost of $25 billion, and we all know how effective that was. Last June, a mere 800 ISIS fighters defeated 30,000 US-trained soldiers and took over Mosul, making off with millions of dollars worth of American military equipment. No problem, says Washington: more training will do the trick. As has been said, doing the same thing and expecting different results is a definition of insanity.

Speaking of insane, ISIS surely fits the bill. Yet there is a logic to the madness. The undeniable lunacy of the Islamic State is not a collective pathology of which the US can easily wash its hands. Until Bush came along, jihadists controlled a few musty caves in Tora Bora, not large swathes of Iraqi, Syrian, Libyan, and Nigerian territory. The self-proclaimed Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was imprisoned by the US at Iraq’s Camp Bucca, usually not a fate conducive to mental balance. More to the point, Iraq has been in a continuous state of war since 1980. All of the last four American presidents have bombed the country. The Bush family alone started two wars against Iraq. Bill Clinton imposed grotesque sanctions that condemned half a million Iraqi children to a premature death, a price that his State Secretary assured us on “60 Minutes” was worth it. And we call ourselves surprised when the world’s largest PTSD ward extends its tentacles across Iraq and Syria through suicide, mass rape, and crucifixion. We stare into the abyss we’ve created and wonder why it stares back at us.

Obama’s policy is based on a contradiction. We hear that ISIS is such a global danger that the war America ended three years ago needs to be refought; yet how bad can it be if it requires neither ground troops nor the forces that could actually defeat it? Electoral politics is at work and it is no surprise that Obama’s call for war came in the wake of much-publicized beheadings of American journalists. His anti-ISIS partners form a “coalition of the unwilling” that cannot even agree on the enemy: one hears reports of US-funded Syria rebels signing non-aggression pacts with ISIS in order to focus on Assad. Obama’s war is a tragic American farce.


What should be done? The prevailing confusion over ISIS gives Obama a unique opportunity to break new ground. The first step is to re-engage Iran by concluding the current nuclear talks with the lifting of all sanctions. Times are changing. The Gulf states will eventually fade as a quirk of history but Iran will always be one of the world’s major countries. Nothing would do more for regional peace than to dissolve the noxious US-Saudi axis and bring Iran back in from the cold. The second step is to defuse the new Cold War with Russia. Putin is authoritarian, an oligarch’s friend, and—his real crime in Western eyes—an Asianizer. Oddly enough, the new Hitler is not nearly as autocratic as Yeltsin, the former drunken darling of the West who shelled Russia’s parliament with tanks in 1993 and started the war in Chechnya the following year. If one could do business with Yeltsin so one can with Putin. Obama knows this better than anyone, having had his bacon saved by the man right after the Ghouta chemical attacks last year. The US had its 15 minutes of unipolarity. A failure to engage with Russia and Iran will only hasten its decline.

Except for its new Western recruits crossing the long Turkish border into Syria, everybody hates ISIS. Defusing the Sunni-Shia tension and ending the antiquated proxy conflicts between the US and Russia would reshuffle the deck so dramatically that ISIS would find its local support dwindling. The alternative is to wait for ISIS to burn itself out, which is the current, unspoken American strategy. This will prolong Assad’s murderous rule as well as invigorate the new dictatorship in Egypt, which thrives on regional chaos.

In the Middle East, nothing is what it seems. Saudi Arabia has a defense budget four times as big as Israel’s, yet it couldn’t defeat Andorra if it tried. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel calls ISIS “a threat to the civilized world,” conveniently forgetting that the group didn’t exist until we intervened. After 150,000 deaths in Syria, the US suddenly makes a U-turn and aligns its interests with the Butcher of Damascus. Try to make sense of this timeline if you can: in 2009, Assad and Kerry have an intimate dinner with their wives in a Damascus restaurant, a touching moment captured in pictures broadcast all over the web; in 2013, Kerry compares his former dinner companion to Adolf Hitler; in 2014, all is forgiven and the US throws its lot with Assad against ISIS.

It would be a mistake to dismiss this theater of the absurd as the work of leaders who can’t think straight. The one non-negotiable constraint is that self-determination is an option that the US and Europe have categorically ruled out for the region. If the consequences are spelled in the language of terror and civil war, so be it. We’ll put out the fires when we have to. Experts will be wheeled in to explain in somber tones why the situation is so dire it requires the dispatch of our newest, shiniest fire trucks. Very serious essayists (not this one obviously) will address the optimal positioning of the water hoses and the training of the new firemen. Only grumpy contrarians will ask why there are so many damn fires in this town. And the show will go on, with its stream of beheadings and airstrikes. Until, one day, the Chinese inform us that we might as well stop piling the corpses because the world has moved on and no one is paying attention any more.

—Bernard Chazelle is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Computer Science at Princeton University. He is currently on leave at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the author of the book, “The Discrepancy Method,” an investigation into the power of randomness in computing, his current research focuses on “natural algorithms” and the algorithmic complexity of living matter. He has written extensively about politics and music.

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  1. A most interesting analysis.
    One other alternative no one seems to want to address right now is to let the local powers sort it out among themselves.
    Why is the West intervening there?

  2. “Butcher” or not, “Hitler” or not, “Staline” or not, Bashar al Assad is increasingly popular in Syria, even more now that the Syrians who wanted ‘democratic reforms’ are not enthused by the “reforms” proposed by either Al Nusra or ISIS.
    The expat opposition failure to get a legitimacy from the Syrians has shown that it has no acceptable political agenda other than an Islamist agenda.

    Realpolitik dictates that the USA proposes to the Syrian government a bargain: We help your army eliminate ISIS, Al Nusrah and all the rebels who are affiliated with Islamist groups. In exchange Syria’s president, Bashar Al Assad would accept to negotiate an enhanced power sharing with Sunnis, including some opposition figures in Syria, guaranteed by Russia and Iran and under the UN umbrella.

  3. Fine articles beget fine comments, such as Virgile’s. I agree that is what realpolitik dictates, just as in WWII the West did an about face and suddenly the butcher of Moscow, Stalin who had mass-murdered his own citizens by the million for over a decade, became the darling of the West because a bigger monster scared the living daylight out of the West: Hitler. It is almost an identical situation in Iraq now. A nightmarish monster as ISIS is, sweeping across the sands of Mesopotamia, using as a model the brutality of the Mongol hordes, is scaring the West enough to be in a position to think in terms of realpolitik and make a course correction that might deviate from the abyss is fast driving toward. Sadly, another factor is short circuiting realpolitik. In WWII there was no axis of Saudi-Arabia/Israel/Christian-Zionists to subvert realpolitik and stop the realignment with USSR. Today we have the axis of princes of SA, Israeli firsters like Lindsey Graham and John McCain occupying Congress and their puppet-masters in Tel Aviv who have contributed greatly to the “theater of the absurd” that Mr. Chazelle refers to, causing the West to zig-zag from one bad policy to a worse one, voting and acting against its own best interests because foreign and domestic lobbyists push for what’s best for their special interest and not for what is best for America or the world. I am appalled by how inept our policy making apparatus has become, how costly their decisions have been, and how at the end everyone will be a loser.

  4. To my surprise the USA seems to be bombing indiscriminately Al Nusra and other Islamist allies to the rebels, to the despair and anger of those rebels who thought the USA would bomb the Syrian army instead.
    Is this part of the USA process of ‘vetting’ rebels by obliging the “good rebels” to distance themselves from the suspicious Islamists ones? Will the US be able to find 5,000 ‘clean’ ones among them. Or is it the bargain I mentioned that has secretly started?

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